As emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte dominated European political and military life for more than two decades. His military genius led him to conquer most of the Continent and extend French control into Asia and Africa. Napoleon not only captured massive territory; he also exported his military and political ideas and techniques and influenced armies and governments throughout the world. In so doing, he clearly established himself as one of the most influential military leaders of all times.
Napoleon’s origins offered no indication of his future greatness. Born on August 15, 1769, in Ajaccio, Corsica, into a Corsican-Italian family of minor nobility in which no “Buonaparte” had ever been a career soldier, Napoleon lived a typical childhood, his early education focused on “gentleman subjects.” As a teenager, however, Napoleon attended military schools in France, which, combined with his voracious reading of military history, led to his decision to seek an army commission. Upon graduating from the military academy in Paris at age sixteen, Napoleon joined the artillery as a second lieutenant. (Napoleon changed the spelling of his surname to Bonaparte in 1796 and, as his fame increased, eventually dropped it entirely.)
When the French Revolution erupted in 1789, Napoleon became a politically active Jacobin as he advanced in rank and responsibility within the army. When Corsica declared its independence in 1793, Napoleon broke all ties with his home island and remained loyal to France. He joined the siege of British forces at Toulon, and although he suffered a bayonet wound himself, he took command of the French artillery after its commander was seriously wounded. His rallying of the cannoneers and his concentrated fire led to a victory for France as well as fame and a promotion to brigadier general for the twenty-six-year-old Napoleon.
Napoleon again proved to be at the right place at the right time on October 5, 1795, when he fired the famous “whiff of grapeshot,” a single artillery volley in Paris that suppressed a Royalist uprising. As a reward, Napoleon received command of the Army of Italy, and in this, his first field command, he began to build his reputation with victories over the Astrians at Lodi, Castiglione, Arcola, and Rivoli in 1796-97. At Lodi, Napoleon displayed his personal bravery by leading a bayonet assault across a bridge against the Austrian rear guard. The French soldiers, not accustomed to such actions by high-ranking officers, nicknamed their valiant five-foot-two commander “the Little Corporal.”
Taking advantage of his victories, Napoleon pushed southward and, by the end of 1797, controlled both Italy and Austria. Now a hero all across France, he did not rest on his laurels; rather, he continued to display the ambition, aggressiveness, and sound judgment that typified the remainder of his career. When he realized that his army was not strong enough for a cross-channel invasion of Britain, Napoleon, with an army of forty thousand, instead sailed to Egypt where he intended to disrupt Britain’s rich trade with India and the surrounding area. He won several victories over the occupying Turks, but before he could pacify the region, Britain’s Horatio Nelson attacked and defeated the French fleet at Alexandria.
Instead of staying to fight a losing battle, Napoleon returned to France and joined an uprising against the ruling Directory. After a successful coup on November 9, 1799, Napoleon became the first consul and the de facto leader of France, with all but dictatorial powers. He revised the French Constitution in 1802, making himself “consul for life,” and again in 1804, declaring himself emperor.
Napoleon backed up these aggrandizing moves with military might and political savvy. In 1800, with a new army assembled by a rigid conscription system, Napoleon again invaded Austria and negotiated a general peace agreement establishing the Rhine River as France’s eastern border. Within the country, he standardized civil law into what became known as the Napoleonic Code, which guaranteed the rights and liberties won in the Revolution, including freedom of religion for all.
Frances’s aggressive foreign policy and its army’s offense-oriented behavior soon ended the brief European peace. In April 1803, Britain resumed its war against Napoleon and two years later added Russia and Austria as allies. Despite the loss of much of his navy in yet another battle against Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon knew that the war would be decided on land. Moving swiftly and attacking violently, Napoleon began his most brilliant campaign, defeating the Austrians at Ulm on October 17, 1805, and a combined Austro-Russian force at Austerlitz on December 2. He then defeated the Prussians at Jena on October 14, 1806, and met and vanquished the Russians at Friedland on February 2, 1807. The resulting Treaty of Tilsit divided most of Europe between the Russians and French.
At the height of his powers, Napoleon implemented the Napoleonic Code, guaranteeing the rights and liberties won in the French Revolution across his sector of Europe. In addition to standardized laws, the code abolished feudalism and serfdom, established freedom of religion, and provided free schooling for all.
Extending French administrative and judicial systems did not, however, satisfy Napoleon’s ambitions. He continued to blockade Britain’s trade routes and openly declared his hostility toward the English, whom he called a “nation of shopkeepers.” He also added to his vast holdings by seizing Portugal in 1807. The following year, Napoleon attempted to annex Spain, but the Spanish, supported by British troops, resisted in what became the Peninsular War, which lasted until 1813. Although he personally led the French in several successful battles, Napoleon left most of the fighting in Spain to his marshals while he conducted operations in central Europe. The Peninsular War eventually cost the French three hundred thousand casualties but yielded no definitive victory.
Despite the quagmire in Spain, Napoleon reacted to deteriorating relations with Russia by invading that country with an army of six hundred thousand on June 24, 1812. Napoleon could conquer the Russian army, but even he could not overcome the Russian winter and the scorched-earth policy of his enemy that left behind no supplies or protection. When Napoleon reached Moscow, his prize was the capture of a burned-out, abandoned city – and the approach of winter, the severity of which had destroyed more than one invading army. By the time remnants of Napoleon’s starving, freezing Grand Army crossed back into France, it totaled no more than ten thousand effective soldiers.
In the spring of 1813, Russia, Prussia, Britain, and Sweden allied together against France. Napoleon rallied his surviving veterans and conscripted new recruits to meet the enemy coalition. Although he continued to fight brilliantly, Napoleon suffered defeat at Leipzig in October 1813 and withdrew into eastern France. Finally, at the urging of his subordinate field marshals, Napoleon agreed to abdicate on April 11, 1814, and accepted banishment to the island of Elba.
But Napoleon did not stay in exile long. In March 1815 he escaped from Elba and sailed for France. The French army, under Marshal Michel Ney, sent by the king to arrest the former emperor, instead rallied to his side. Soon most of his old veterans were raising their swords and following Napoleon as he again assumed the offensive and achieve several victories. Napoleon’s new reign, however, was to last only one hundred days. At Waterloo on Jun 18, 1815, Napoleon and his army, neither displaying their usual aggressiveness or élan, suffered a decisive defeat by Wellington and Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher.
Napoleon surrendered and accepted exile to the remote British Island of St. Helena, in the South Atlantic, where he died a year later, on May 5, 1821, at age fifty-one, of stomach cancer, or according to some accounts, from gradual arsenic poisoning. His remains were not returned to France until 1840, when they were interred in Les Invalides in Paris.
Interestingly, Napoleon, the greatest soldier of his age and one of the best of all time, was not particularly innovative. He did not originate any dynamic new weapons or devise new tactics. Rather, he proved himself a master of adaptation, using what worked well, discarding what did not, and maximizing current technology, including the recent improvements in European road networks and the increased production capacity of the French arms industry. Napoleon, through coordination, close supervision, selection of effective subordinates, and an integration of forces, achieved and maintained peak performance from his army. Even more important, Napoleon knew that any army’s success lay in the spirit and morale of its individual soldiers. Napoleon’s command presence, charisma, natural leadership, and personal bravery created and perpetuated a fighting spirit heretofore unknown on European battlefields.
Napoleon based his tactics on speed and shock action, and he tailored his army to meet these objectives, organizing his divisions into corps and armies configured in such a way that each could act independently. Divisions could deploy from the march to combat formations and fight without further instruction. To lead these divisions, Napoleon selected “fighters” whose bravery inspired their subordinates. He also understood the elements of chance and often credited “luck” as an important trait of a military commander.
Luck aside, Napoleon, with the assistance of his chief of staff, Louis Alexandre Berthier, planned his campaigns and battles carefully, personally briefed his subordinate commanders, and then allowed them independence to control their units in the midst of battle. Tactically and strategically, Napoleon remained willing to take calculated chances, but his every move on the battlefield concentrated solely on destroying the enemy forces, for he knew that no country could defend its lands without an army.
Napoleon left no written philosophy of warfare. Both Karl von Clausewitz and Antione Henri Jomini later made their reputations (and inclusion in the list of the top 100) by defining the rules, art, and concepts of Napoleonic warfare and the staff system he developed. However, these analyses, even though written by direct participants, do not agree on the keys to Napoleon’s success.
What the self-styled emperor did leave behind, though, was significant: the Napoleonic Code, which did much to standardize law and administration across Europe. He was the impetus for the creation of Germany and Italy, for those individual countries had to unify themselves to meet his threat. He bequeathed his military organization, tactics, and strategy to future generations of European leaders, American Civil War commanders, and succeeding heads of state.
Napoleon, often described as so driven and ambitious as to be deranged, was truly dedicated to the advancement of France and, of course, himself. As one of the earliest proponents of self-promotion, Napoleon engaged France’s best artists and writers to glorify his accomplishments, making his single name Napoleon synonymous with military greatness. Calling himself the “man of destiny,” Napoleon admitted, “Power is my mistress,” as he triumphed in becoming one of history’s most successful military commanders.
Although Napoleon spread death and destruction, often without quarter to soldier or civilian, he brought liberties to conquered territories not heretofore experienced. The very name Napoleon remains today synonymous with military influence and leadership. Only the defeat of his unrelenting ambition by the allied European powers prevented his heading the list of influential commanders.